When Chicago police officers found a 15-year-old they had been pursuing with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, they were quick to explain what had happened.
About an hour after the shooting on Friday night, Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said, “He tragically used the weapon on himself.”
But in Chicago, where there has long been deep mistrust between the police and the black community, the death of the boy, Steven Rosenthal, has been called into question by his family, who dispute the police’s contention that he had killed himself.
On Sunday, more than 100 residents gathered outside the middle school that Steven had attended as his family called for answers about the events that led to his death.
Steven had been at his grandmother’s home in West Chicago, on the 1500 block of South Keeler Avenue, on Friday, Andrew M. Stroth, a lawyer representing his family, said in a phone interview on Monday. The police have said that officers in the area saw him and began pursuing him because they believed he had a weapon.
Around 7 p.m., the officers chased him up to the third floor of a complex, said Mr. Guglielmi, when they heard a single shot and came to the conclusion that he had shot himself. “The officers were shocked,” he said.
He described the weapon found next to Steven as a semiautomatic handgun, and said the ballistics were still being processed. No officers fired their weapons, he said.
Mr. Guglielmi said police body camera footage reviewed by the department does not capture the shooting. The department has asked the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which typically investigates police misconduct, to investigate, he said. The department is allowing Steven’s family and Mr. Stroth to view the footage, Mr. Guglielmi added.
The medical examiner for Cook County said Steven had a gunshot wound to the head and declared his death a suicide. But Mr. Stroth said the family would like to see all the evidence, including all body camera footage and a full autopsy report, before reaching a conclusion. “The family wants to find the truth,” he said.
“If the footage is inconclusive, then I have to look at all the other evidence,” Mr. Stroth said, saying he knows of witnesses who tell a different story.
“There are several eyewitness reports that dispute the police account of what happened,” Mr. Stroth said. He noted that in the city, “There is a history of a pattern and practice of unjustified use of excessive lethal force.”
In 2017, the Justice Department released a report detailing a 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department and found that officers frequently used excessive force aimed at African-Americans and Latinos. It also found a deep lack of trust among residents.
The report laid out unchecked aggressions, including an instance when an officer pointed a gun at teenagers on bicycles suspected of trespassing and another case in which officers purposely dropped off young gang members in rival territory.
At a news conference on Monday, Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago Police said he recognized the strained relationship between the police and the black community in the city.
“I’m a black man that’s lived in Chicago his entire life,” he said, “so I know the tension between the Police Department and the black community.”
Asked about Steven’s family’s disbelief of what the police have said about how he died, Superintendent Johnson called it “a tragic incident” and said the department would try to provide “some relief” by keeping the family informed. “As soon as we can hopefully provide them some relief, you know, we will certainly do that,” he said.
Steven’s aunt and legal guardian, Terinica Thomas-Level, struggled through tears as she spoke about her nephew at the news conference on Sunday, saying that he was a good student loved by his teachers at Crane High School.
Steven, who was a rising sophomore, had shown no signs of being suicidal, Mr. Stroth said. He had just celebrated his 15th birthday on Aug. 13, he said, and was adored by his little brothers, Jeremiah, who is 6, and Juliun, who is 2.
He had no criminal history, Mr. Stroth said, and he was never known to carry a weapon. Steven had played on his high school’s basketball team and had planned on playing football this year, he said.
“This kid was not depressed,” Mr. Stroth said. “He was planning his life.”
Mitch Smith contributed reporting.
Follow Melissa Gomez on Twitter: @MelissaGomez004.